Whether you’re looking at photos on a real-estate website or touring an open house live and in person, here are some bright red flags and some more subtle problems to look for.
When touring an open house, it’s easy to become distracted by things that don’t matter all that much. What’s with the orange-and-red shag carpeting in the master bedroom? (You can replace it.) Why the porcelain owl collection? (It’s not staying behind.) When’s the last time you saw a fuzzy toilet-seat cover? (It’s definitely not staying.)
But there are other, more important things to look for when walking through a house you might like to buy. Some are obvious: Why does that kitchen floor look like it runs downhill? Others are not: When we bought our first house, it wasn’t until we tried to have the fireplace professionally cleaned that we learned it had been damaged, likely in a chimney fire.
Whether you’re looking at photos on a real-estate website or touring an open house live and in person, here are some bright red flags and some more subtle items of which to take note.
1. Signs of water damage
Signs of water damage may not be as obvious in the photo above. You can look for brown water lines across ceilings and on walls, though, and if the home has a basement, pay close attention to the carpet, walls and flooring down there. Don’t be afraid to reach down and touch the carpet in the lowest areas of the basement to see if it’s at all wet, especially if there’s just been a big rainstorm. Musty smells can also indicate water has found its way into the home’s lower level.
2. Foundation cracks
Oof, you don’t want to have to pay to have your home’s foundation repaired. Cracks may not be as obvious as the one in this photo, but there are signs to look for. Check for misaligned doors and windows, sticking doors and sloping stairs or floors as signs that the house might not be solidly anchored.
3. Nearby bodies of water
If you have or plan to have children, you should do your research into whether there are any bodies of water near your proposed new home. This could be a wonderful benefit: Ice-skating on the neighborhood pond! Wandering down to the local beach! Even making friends with that next-door neighbor with the awesome pool! But kids can wander out of eyesight quickly, and a body of water that can look enticing and fun to them could be deadly.
4. Too many stairs
Staircases can be beautiful, and when you’re young and healthy, they’re easy to run up and down. But if there’s a possibility you might have an older relative moving in some day, think twice about too many staircases. Grandma may not be able to climb them easily. At the minimum, you may want to reconsider a house that doesn’t have at least one main-floor bedroom.
5. Window issues
Older windows may not close tightly, which can make for high utility bills. Test a few — see if they open easily and securely, and close in a similar way.
6. The neighbors
You can do many things to improve your home, but you can’t improve your neighbors. There’s often no way of knowing if the family next door will become your best friends or your nemesis. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cast an eye over at the neighboring homes.
7. The neighborhood
We all know the real-estate agents’ mantra: Location, location, location. You’re probably not looking at a home in a neighborhood you dislike, but there are many details to consider when picking a neighborhood. If you or anyone in your home will take public transportation, check how far it is to the nearest stop. If the home doesn’t have a garage, is street parking plentiful? How are the local schools? Can you walk to a coffee shop or grocery store, if that’s your thing? Or maybe you want the country life, and have different requirements. (Can you keep horses?) Know as much as you can about your proposed new neighborhood before committing to a new area.
8. Funny smells
Home sellers are trying to put their best foot forward, and if their house stinks, that means that they likely tried, but couldn’t extinguish a bad smell. Could be mold, could be mildew, and could be pet accidents, none of which are fun to deal with once the home is yours. A tip: Also watch out for overly false good smells, like a bunch of scented candles burning, or the old freshly baked cookie trick. It’s possible they’re leaning hard on good scents to mask the bad ones.
9. Closet space
For some it’s not a dealbreaker, but face it, we all need room for our stuff. Closets can be questionable, especially if the homeowner jammed an extra bedroom in there and had to create a closet to make the room legally qualify. Try to picture how full your closets are at home (though perhaps they could use a slim-down) and envision whether those items will fit into the new home’s closet space. You don’t want to end up hanging your suits from your bathroom shower rod.
10. Age of the roof
Replacing a roof can run as high as $25,000. Check out the roof’s age and condition on any home you might want to buy. An older roof may not scare you away from your otherwise dream home, but you’ll need to figure that replacement cost into your future budgeting.
11. Chimney issues
A fireplace was one of the non-negotiables we wanted in our first home. We lived in a wintry climate, planned on having children, and wanted a cozy hearth where their stockings could hang and we could enjoy the crackling flames on a December night. But we soon learned that earlier residents had apparently had a damaging chimney fire and never relined the chimney, which we had to do if we were ever to realize those wintertime dreams. When we went to buy our second house, I insisted on a chimney inspector taking a look inside the fireplace and chimney before we signed on the dotted line. It was an added expense, but well worth it.
12. Water pressure
Lackadaisical water pressure can be a sign of a problem you can’t see — possible corrosion or other issues deep inside the home’s pipes. Test out the faucets by running them full blast (turn them off tightly afterwards of course) to see how the water runs. It’ll be a good preview of what your showers might be like.
13. Storage space
Where are you going to store those holiday ornaments, door wreaths, camping gear and out-of-season sports equipment? Do you have Grandma’s china, or a family wedding dress gathering dust in an attic or basement? Think seriously not just about regular clothes-closet space, but about space to store all your extras. Maybe you’re a Marie Kondo-style minimalist, but most of us have at least a few boxes of items that don’t necessarily spark joy, but we can’t yet bring ourselves to toss. They need their own space too.
14. Natural light
You may be touring a home in bright daylight on a summer day, but try to get an idea of what it’ll look like on a gloomier day. Are there enough windows and doors to let in natural light, even in lower levels and rooms with small windows? A gloomy home is a home in which you won’t want to spend time.
On the other hand — are you looking at homes in a desert climate? Think about what shade or protection you will have on a searing hot day in summer.
15. Leakage around the toilet
This one sounds weird, but when you’re in the house’s bathroom, examine the floor around the base of the toilet. Of course you’re unlikely to find visible water, but you might see stains indicating there’s been a leak. The floor around the toilet shouldn’t be soft and the toilet bowl should be tightly secured, so that even if you try to gently shake it, it doesn’t move.